Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Scandalous Women by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

I kinda pride myself on being a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to knowing things about what I like to call hidden history, a term coined by someone smarter than me for the parts of the past that don't tend to make it into school textbooks, or even the History Channel. I'd like to think I work hard on this, but then I read a book like Scandalous Women, which reminds me that no matter how progressive you might think you are, there's always parts of the historical narrative that only the most dedicated researchers can find.

That's certainly the case with this book, in which Mahon turns her blog into a book, hoping to catch people with this eye-grabbing title and maybe help them learn something. She does so not by trying to be neutral or present people in a good light. Instead, like any good internet writer, this book is filled with snark, pithy remarks (like how Anne Boleyn made King Henry VIII put a ring on it), and a frank discussion of the good and bad traits of her subjects.

The title itself is a bit of a misnomer. While some of these women certainly are notorious, I'm not sure that Amelia Earhart counts as scandalous. Of course, "Women You Should Know" just doesn't have the same ring to it. There is definitely an emphasis on sex in the book, even for those who were not really known for their sexual escapades. While the book seems to chastise the contemporaries of these women for focusing on their bedroom habits, it seems to me that Mahon has, to some degree, done the same thing. It does get monotonous at certain points, especially as the book progresses into 19th and 20th century women, where we know more of their relationship history. I know the idea is to heighten the scandal part of their lives, but sometimes I felt like I was intruding where I didn't belong in reading about their love affairs. Perhaps that's just me.

Where the book shines is in highlighting women who should be in their own spotlight, rather than hugging the shadows of a more famous man, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine or Emiie du Chatelet or even Bolelyn. There are also some interesting women who have similar male analogs who strike me as a lot more compelling, like Boudica or Calamity Jane (whose real story would make a great modern Western) or Ida B Wells-Barnett or the pirate lady team of Anne Bonney and Mary Read.

Some of these women were familiar to me, but others, Wells-Barnett in particular, deserve to have their story told on a wider stage. I'm sure there are biographies for these folks, but we need to get them into the wider consciousness, which means movies or at least a reference in a textbook. What Scandalous Women does well is gives readers a starting point. You could spend years reading about each of these women and not lack for quality material to study. The fact that Mahon did this for a blog, without pay, makes it all the more incredible.

Scandalous Women is very much a modern history book. I appreciate the fresh writing but those looking for a more scholarly approach will be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you want to learn a bit more about women who are just as important in history, such as a contemporary of Rodin that might have been his better or a woman who refused to let getting impaled prevent her from art and lovers, then give this book a try. You might even learn something, and even if you don't, I guarantee you'll be entertained!

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